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Illini’s Big Ten struggles continue with loss to Spartans

Published: Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 11:06 p.m. CDT
Illinois' Jon Ekey (left) and Michigan State's Gary Harris fight for position during Saturday's game in Champaign. The Illini's recent slide continued with a 78-62 loss to the Spartans.

CHAMPAIGN – After losing to Wisconsin, Illinois coach John Groce said a superior team simply outplayed the Illini. After losing to Northwestern, he called his team's offensive performance "inept." After losing to Purdue, he described the rebounding effort as "unacceptable."

In Saturday night's 78-62 loss to Michigan State, Groce didn't need words.

Frustrated with officials, he ripped off his jacket and threw it at his bench, and drew a technical foul. He pounded the scorers' table throughout the game as players missed opportunities. After calling another foul on the Illini instead of a jump ball in the final minute, Groce stomped onto the court and pushed assistant coach Dustin Ford out of the way to berate officials.

"I thought they were terrific," he said of the officials.

Ultimately, the Illini (13-6, 2-4) weren't. They showed more fight, but still dropped their fourth straight Big Ten game.

The Illini had gained momentum late in the game on a 6-0 run, but a foul on Kendrick Nunn not only negated a Jon Ekey 3-pointer that would have cut Michigan State's lead to 62-56 with less than 6 minutes remaining, it also infuriated Groce.

"It affected the momentum of the game," he said of the call. "Basketball is a game of momentum and runs."

Groce got little out of starters Nnanna Egwu and Joseph Bertrand, and as a result freshmen saw increased minutes. Maverick Morgan (16) and Kendrick Nunn (29) posted career highs in minutes while combining for nine points.

Freshman Malcolm Hill added eight points.

Bertrand played only 9 minutes in the second half and finished with only four points after a scoreless first half.

Groce said before the game that he planned to "ride with" Egwu, who would be invisible in Big Ten play if not for his costly errors. He entered the game shooting 26.2 percent in conference play and didn't help with a scoreless performance against Michigan State.

There could have been an opening for improvement without Michigan State' center Adreian Payne in the game. But Egwu followed up on his 0-for-7 scoreless game against the Boilermakers with an 0-for-3 shooting night against the Spartans and grabbed just two rebounds.

"I think in terms of his production he probably feels he could do a little bit more," Groce said.

The Spartans (17-1, 6-0), who are off to their best start in team history, shot 55.8 percent for the game. Gary Harris led them with 23 points on 7-for-9 shooting.

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